Anthrax—it may be the hardest story journalists have ever had to cover.
First, because Americans are so frightened by the deadly potential of the anthrax bacterium, it is imperative that journalists walk a fine line between explaining and exaggerating on the one hand and between informing and downplaying on the other.
Secondly, because the motives, and even the identity, of the perpetrator or perpetrators is unclear, and so many questions remain unanswered: If Usama bin Laden’s people are behind the vile mailings of white powder, why haven’t there been more of them, thousands of envelopes sent to hundreds of locations? Why haven’t the results been more deadly? Why not more cases of pulmonary anthrax among the victims instead of the less dangerous cutaneous form? If not bin Laden’s people, who? Copycats? Cranks? The Timothy McVeigh fan club? The Unabomber’s devoted followers? The next generation of Branch Davidians?
Thirdly, because journalists themselves are the targets.
This has never happened before. Of course, journalists have been killed in the line of duty; they have been imprisoned and tortured and even brainwashed. But they have always been targeted as individuals, never en masse. They have always been targeted abroad, never in the United States. And they have always been targeted for specific purposes, never so indiscriminately as now: the infant of an ABC News producer, Tom Brokaw’s assistant at NBC, Dan Rather's assistant at CBS, the various employees of some supermarket tabloids. How many others will there be? When will we learn of them? Will the death toll rise?
Journalists are no longer on the outside of the event, reporting on others. They are insiders now, reporting on their brethren, their office mates, their drinking buddies and fellow partygoers. They are opening their mail more carefully than they used to, and in some cases are not opening it at all. They are showing their IDs to more security people at the doors of their office buildings than they used to encounter at Eastern European border crossings.
They are trying to cope with the terrible reality that their detachment, so crucial on their list of job qualifications, so important to the proper performance of their duties, has been stripped away from them. No longer does a journalist need to shove a microphone into the face of a victim and say, "How do you feel?" Now, the press can ask themselves that question. They have become the victims. They are the humans in the human element of the story.
I have been interviewed quite often since Sept. 11, people asking me how well I think journalists have covered the terrorist attacks and the complexities of the aftermath. But in the past week or so, I have heard something a little different, several interrogators from several media outlets seeming to read from the same cue card: Do I think that the ladies and gentlemen of the press should consider themselves journalists first and Americans second, or Americans first and then journalists?
It’s a silly question. What, exactly, does it mean? Why does it create such an unrealistic, either/or scenario?
But there is an interesting point at its core. Journalists are often so detached that they do not think of themselves as belonging to any category at all, whether it be one of ideology or ethnicity or even—at least insofar as it affects their reportage—race.
But if the missiles of Sept. 11 did not put journalists into a category, the missives of the past few weeks have. That category is American. Or perhaps, if they like the sound of it better, American journalist. The nation that has given the media unprecedented freedom to pursue their vocational aims is now under assault from people who resent the very notion of freedom in almost all of its forms, and this writer, at least, can only hope that reporters and commentators from coast to coast will respond to it in a manner equally unprecedented: by figuring out how to combine objectivity and patriotism in such a manner that neither is compromised.
Oh, by the way. If somebody puts some anthrax into an envelope and mails it to Reuters, would that be terrorism?
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .
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